If you’re reading this, you probably know how important SEO is to your business.
Great SEO is like owning a store on a popular shopping street: you get traffic even without any promotions.
The trouble is, SEO is terrifyingly competitive and painfully slow. As a small business owner, you have neither the patience nor the resources for such slow and uncertain results.
What if I told that you that there was a way to “hack” your rankings (while still keeping Google happy)?
As I’ll show you below, by adopting a growth hacking approach to SEO, you can outrank stronger competitors and dominate SERPs.
First, let’s understand this mystifying term – “growth hacking” – that keeps popping all over marketing blogs.
Here’s what Sean Ellis (who coined the term) has to say about growth hackers:
“A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth”
And this is how Wikipedia defines growth hacking:
“Growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business.”
In plain speak, you might say that growth hacking is experiment-focused marketing where the goal is to produce 10-100x results.
Publishing an article on your blog isn’t growth hacking; getting 100 readers to publish their own articles on your blog is.
Growth hacking is as applicable to a small business as it is to a tech startup. The only thing you need is a willingness to experiment and relentless pursuit of 10x results.
The best way to understand the growth hacking approach is to see some actual growth hacks in the wild.
These hacks are proven to work
A featured snippet or “rich answer” is when Google highlights content at the top of the SERPs for certain queries.
For example, when you Google “what is FTP”, here’s what you’ll see:
The highlighted part at the top of the page is the featured snippet. As per a 2015 report, roughly 19.5% of all queries have these rich answers.
Now if you look at the image again, you’ll notice that Wikipedia actually ranks at #3 for this query. Yet, because of the featured snippet, it occupies the top spot on the page.
In other words, Wikipedia gets the bulk of the traffic for this query despite ranking below other websites.
This is a great example of a tactic that lets you punch above your weight (i.e. a growth hack). A site that lands a featured snippet spot invariably gets much more traffic than sites that outrank it in the SERPs.
In one case study, getting a rich answer led to a substantial jump in search traffic:
Unfortunately, featured snippets are algorithmically decided; there is no way to guarantee a spot in the snippet.
However, you can take some steps to greatly increase your chances of getting a featured snippet. Ann Smarty covered it in an earlier guest post.
Mostly, you need to:
This won’t guarantee a featured snippet spot but it will improve your chances significantly.
Not all content is equal when it comes to SEO.
Some content types, such as research reports, tools, in-depth guides, and even pranks and hoaxes often attract far more links than standard blog posts.
Focusing on these content-types can often get you outsized results for less effort.
Consider an example: in 2012, SerpIQ published a data-backed report on the average word count of top 10 SERPs.
Since 2012, this page has earned a steady stream of backlinks:
This is a perfect example of a low link velocity content assets. These are usually useful resources that people discover and link out to over time. Tools, research reports, guides, resource pages etc. fall in this category.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have high link velocity content assets. These are usually stories that are picked up by the media and attract a ton of links quickly before fading into obscurity.
For example, in 2012, Wish.co.uk launched a “Zombie Experience” where you could escape zombies in an abandoned shopping mall, a la Dawn of the Dead.
This was an innovative experience and the story was soon picked up by a number of blogs.
As a result, it earned hundreds of backlinks within days:
A growth hacker approach to content creation would focus more on creating a mix of such high and low link velocity content.
What kind of content you develop would depend largely on your existing expertise.
If you have a lot of PR experience, a clever prank story (like Wish’s Zombie Experience) might earn you a lot of links.
If you have data scientists on your team, creating a research report might do better. If your strength is front-end development, an interactive graphic like this one would work great.
The idea is simple: find your strength, then create a highly linkable content asset (either high or low velocity).
This will work far better than pumping out blog post after blog post.
Conventionally, strong off-page factors (i.e. backlinks, domain age, etc.) could help you overcome poor on-page experience.
This isn’t the case anymore.
Consider, for instance, Moz’s ranking of SEO factors:
While domain and page-level link factors still matter, content, engagement and experience matter nearly as much, if not more.
We often find that we can make great strides applying this tactic to sites that haven’t paid attention to on-page factors. A recent success came with Jackson Tree, a St Louis area tree company.
This is corroborated by another study by Backlinko which, for instance, found a close correlation between a page-level content factor – content authority – and rankings.
Which is to say, if you can offer users a stellar on-page experience, you might be able to outrank much stronger domains.
There are dozens of on-page factors but here are two you need to optimize for:
Website page speed is a critical on-page ranking factor. This makes sense from a user-experience point of view – a slower site results in a poor experience, especially on mobile.
In its study, Backlinko found that the slower a site was, the less likely it was to rank at the top of the SERPs.
Improving your page load speed is a powerful way to improve rankings without changing the content or adding backlinks. Between two identical domains, the faster one will invariably rank higher.
Check out Mahak Diman’s article to learn how to improve page load speed.
The amount of traffic your site gets through search depends on three factors:
If you can get more people to click your site in the SERPs, you can get more traffic without a change in your rankings.
Here’s an example: Brian Dean of Backlinko changed the title of one of his top ranking posts:
The second title was more persuasive, leading to more people clicking on his site in the SERPs. Overall, the new title increased organic traffic to his site by 45%:
To get more clicks for your site, start approaching page titles and descriptions from the perspective of a copywriter, not an SEO. Make your titles more persuasive and emotion-rich, instead of focusing solely on keywords.
John has an excellent post on writing like a copywriter. This should be your first stop in creating more persuasive website content and titles.
When most marketers think of “influencer marketing”, they usually think in terms of social media marketing.
Sure, getting your content shared by an influencer can drive a ton of traffic, but the benefits go beyond that.
Content creators often look to top influencers (which includes newsletters and sites) to discover new content. More often than not, content shared by influencers gets linked out to by dozens of their followers.
I’ll illustrate with an example: Sidebar.io is one of the most popular design newsletters online with over 20,000 subscribers.
On November 24, 2016, it shared a link to an article on using metaphor in product illustration:
The article was published on November 21. In its first three days, it earned just a couple of backlinks.
However, after Sidebar mentioned the article, its total backlinks shot up dramatically:
This is the kind of outsized impact being mentioned by a top influencer can have on your backlinks.
A growth hacker approach to outreach would be to cultivate relationships with such influencers. You can easily tap a single relationship to get 10x as many links as you would with conventional outreach.
Relationship building is a rather lengthy process where you give, give, give before asking for something in return (similar to Gary Vee’s “jab, jab jab, right hook” approach to marketing).
Essentially, you have to:
Frederik Vincx wrote a post on influencer marketing that still serves as the perfect blueprint to relationship building. I recommend you start there.
In case you’re looking for tools to help with influencer outreach, this page is a good place to start.
As a growth-focused marketer, you want to create content for the next generation of consumers, not the last.
In the words of Wayne Gretzky, go “where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.
For SEOs, this means being aware of two trends that are changing computing: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice computing.
As CBInsights reports, activity in AI space has increased exponentially in the last 5 years:
This is reflected in search results as well. Google increasingly gives you answers to certain queries instead of directing you to a web page.
If you Google “who is the director of back to the future”, you will see this, not an IMDB link:
At the same time, a voice is slowly becoming the user interface of choice for a new generation of users. Nearly 20% of Google’s queries on mobile phones are voice-only, while Amazon routinely sells out its popular Alexa speaker/assistant.
Instead, you have to focus on natural language queries, i.e. actual questions people need answers to. You can’t expect to grow in 2020 if you’re still writing content for “insurance companies Atlanta”. You have to create content that will rank in a voice search, or show up as the top answer in Google Now or Siri.
If you want to find natural language queries, ditch the keyword tool. Use AnwerThePublic.com instead.
This is essentially a PR tool that creates who, what, how, when related questions for a seed term.
For example, entering “growth hacking” in the search box shows me this:
These are all legitimate questions a user might have about growth hacking. More importantly, these are all natural language queries, not keywords. A user searching via voice is more likely to ask “who invented growth hacking” than “growth hacking inventor”.
If you create content answering these questions, you’ll have a strong chance of getting found in search results, today and in the future.
Quora is another way to find future-ready content ideas. Since Quora only has community asked and curated questions, you only see topics people actually want answers to.
Plugging in “growth hacking” into the search box, for instance, shows me a bunch of very promising questions:
These would be ideal topics if you wanted to get found in voice search results.
A growth hacking approach to SEO means adopting a 10x mindset. Instead of doing things the regular way, growth hackers find ways to get exponential results.
This covers everything from keyword research to content creation.
Use this list as a starting point in your growth hacking journey. More than specific hacks, it’s important to understand the approach behind them.
Once you truly understand this mindset, you’ll be able to discover unconventional hacks to improve your rankings much, much faster.
Puranjay runs GrowthPub, a content-focused growth marketing agency. He also blogs at GrowthSimple where he just created a comprehensive list of growth hacking tactics. When not brainstorming marketing ideas, he likes to play the guitar and practice his golf swing.